It’s finally summer, when you get to swap out too-late nights of studying for a nap in a hammock and a frosty glass of lemonade when you wake up. And though you’ve sold back your last few textbooks (for a shockingly low price), that doesn’t mean your brain should put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign until the Fall semester.
It’s only logical that to keep your brain in fighting shape for the school year, you should train in the off-season. Whether you’re interning, working, or lazing on a beach blanket, you still need to flex those mental muscles. Here are 5 activities to keep your mind sharp while still enjoying summer.
Study resources for the courses you’re actually taking—whenever you need them.Start here
1. Dive into a good book.
Take advantage of the longer days and crack open something other than a textbook. Use this epic summer reading list, or this one, as inspiration. If you want to catch up on the beach reads everyone is talking about, check out Queenie, by Candice Carty-Williams. Or pick up one of the novels soon to be a movie, like The Goldfinch by Donna Tart or the classic Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.
Your local library will lend you books for free. Apps such as Libby and Hoopla let you download books and audiobooks directly to your phone or e-reader. No matter what you choose, immersing yourself in a good book does lots of good things for you: reading reduces stress, increases problem-solving skills, and boosts your emotional IQ.
You might even consider starting a book club to reconnect with friends over summer break (IRL or through Skype). Or, join an established digital community (like a Facebook book group) for that extra push. Book groups are also a social, low-key way to brush up on your analytical discussion skills for when you’re back at school.
2. Watch a documentary (or 2 or 3)
Summer is the season for blockbuster movie releases (we still plan to see The Lion King despite some less-than-stellar reviews) and bingeing … just about anything. When you’re perusing Netflix, don’t overlook documentary films, which are just as compelling (if not more so) as fictional films. As the aptly titled blog post Why Documentaries Have the Power to Change the World states, “They serve as powerful tools that bring important topics to the table in a captivating way that also sparks conversation, and sometimes even social movements. Character-driven, feature-length documentaries focused on the stories of real people put a human face on global issues that might otherwise seem distant or unrelatable.”
Take Ava DuVernay’s recently released When They See Us (actually a docudrama, based on research but told through actors). Telling the story of the wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five, the movie has increased public awareness about problems within our criminal justice system, and it resulted in the prosecutors being held accountable.
There are documentaries for every area of interest, and watching you’ll learn about things that aren’t taught in class—unless your school offers Beyoncé 101. If you don’t have Netflix, most libraries rent movies and offer free streaming documentary downloads via apps like Kanopy. Gain a deeper understanding of politics from Knock Down the House, check out Paris Is Burning to see what came before the popular reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race, or learn the truth behind the cycling doping scandal that took down Lance Armstrong in Icarus. If you’re a true crime buff, you’ll be terrified watching Abducted in Plain Sight.
Here are even more documentary films that will keep you glued to the small screen on those rainy days.
3. Break out a Board Game
They’re not just for kids, you know. Besides being fun to play with friends, they’ll stoke your competitive streak, and your creativity. Learning new rules, plotting strategies, and making quick decisions all activate, exercise, and strengthen your brain. Check out a cooperative game like Pandemic, where players flex their mental muscles from memory retrieval to risk analysis, and you win or lose as a group. If you’re just dipping your toe into the world of analog games, here are a few more suggestions.
Many communities have local board game stores (search where Magic: The Gathering is played and it will lead you to the right place) that stock “tester” copies of popular games that you can try out. They also run designated board game nights where a group can learn a new game together.
4. Take a class
Before you say, “Are you kidding me, it’s summer!” hear us out. Summer classes are a great way to pick up a few credits so that when you have a particularly difficult semester in the future, you can take one less class. Or try something completely different from your usual course load. From woodworking to cooking to knitting to surfing, there are endless class options that fall into the summertime fun category. Learning new skills encourages the brain to create new neural pathways, which makes it work faster and more efficiently. So stretch your mind a little (and maybe even your body, with an online exercise class) by learning a new skill, or making something new, and having fun while you’re doing it.
There are so many benefits to volunteering—as long as you don’t volunteer as tribute! The non–Hunger Games benefits include feeling more socially connected and less stressed or lonely, and being at lower risk of depression. Volunteering has even been described as a secret to lasting happiness, with fMRIs showing that giving time to others stimulates the parts of the brain that receive pleasure.
As if that weren’t enough, volunteering also broadens your worldview in a way that classroom experience can’t. Each opportunity provides a window into new people, places, and situations you wouldn’t have otherwise experienced. Volunteering as a tutor is a natural choice for college students; it can reinforce your own skills and deepen your understanding of the subject matter as you share it with others.
Other volunteering opportunities can include anything from delivering meals to homebound senior citizens to walking dogs at your local animal shelter, directly engaging with people and animals in ways that truly make a difference in their lives. Volunteering with seniors also teaches you about the struggles of the elderly; you may learn some history when you hear personal stories of those who have lived through events you’ve only read about.
Volunteering with a political campaign can help you better understand the political system and news of the day. It can also help you find your voice as you work to change the things you don’t like in the world, fighting to make it a better place.